Leaders ineffective at driving success: Survey

A focus on developing managers’ speed, agility, resilience can help increase confidence
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/08/2011

Many organizations doubt their leaders’ ability to drive success, according to a recent survey by Aon Hewitt. While leaders play a vital role in delivering desired customer service (53 per cent), meeting business goals (40 per cent) and achieving profitability targets (40 per cent), their perceived ability to execute these tasks well is much lower, found the 2011 Canadian Talent Survey which polled 386 organizations.

Only 14 per cent of respondents — primarily directors or managers in an HR role — said leaders are extremely effective at delivering quality customer service, while their ability to meet business goals and profitability targets extremely effectively came in at eight per cent and 10 per cent, respectively.

“It’s an extremely challenging business environment, presently — it is much more difficult for leaders and there are probably some areas outside of their control,” said Robert Carlyle, vice-president of global workforce planning and strategies at Aon Hewitt in Toronto. “The economy was very different in the last five years than in the previous decade and leaders may not have been as prepared.”

Leaders were also seen as playing a crucial role in retaining talent (35 per cent) but only five per cent of survey respondents rated leaders as extremely effective in doing so.

Employers should never underestimate the power of the relationship between an employee and his direct supervisor as it has a huge impact on retention, said Pierre Battah, owner of HR management consulting firm Battah Associates in Moncton, N.B.

At IT staffing agency Eagle Professional Resources in Ottawa, managers play a big part in retaining employees.

“We’re still small enough that everybody knows everybody. I’m kind of a joker so when I’m in different offices I go around and upset everybody’s apple cart,” said Kevin Dee, Eagle’s CEO. “All the managers are encouraged to be thoughtful and treat people like people, not like numbers. We try hard to create the right environment.”

To build confidence in leaders, employers need to focus on investing in leadership development, said Battah. They need to identify the high potentials, lay down high expectations and provide leaders with the right training, support and coaching, he said.

“It’s about paying more than lip service to leadership development,” said Battah. “For us to say, ‘We throw a little bit of money and a few courses at our leaders once and a while’ isn’t good enough — you’re not going to feel more confident about your leaders by doing that minimal effort.”

Developing middle management, in particular, needs to be a major focus at organizations as it is a critical layer for the day-to-day business and is made up of future leaders, said Carlyle. Training and development for this group should be anchored in individual performance plans.

“The best programs are coaching and mentoring programs around the context and problems those leaders are currently facing,” said Carlyle. “So it’s on-the-job coaching and training to develop the skills you need to be successful, as opposed to just creating general management capabilities.”

Focus on most valuable talent

Another way organizations can gain confidence in their leaders is by focusing on the most valuable talent, found the survey. Eagle, which has 85 full-time and 90 contract employees, invests in its top performers by offering them a variety of training opportunities such as a three-month “boot camp” to learn about all aspects of the industry, said Dee.

“We put them out in the field and in various offices and that’s proven to be a great way to get new people into the company,” he said.

“We’re able to identify future managers this way… and the people who have graduated from the program have gone on to be quite successful.”

Organizations should also focus on pay for performance, found the survey. They should make sure bonuses are tied to measurable outcomes so leaders know if they focus on those items, good things will happen to their pay and they’re doing the things that are expected of them, said Battah.

“If we’re going to focus on our stars and champions, we need to make sure they’re treated in such a way (that) it’s worthwhile for them,” he said. “I think you need to be fair and balanced in how you do these things but we do need to focus on our high potentials.”

Identify leaders who demonstrate speed, agility

Identifying leaders who demonstrate speed and agility will also help increase confidence in leaders, found the survey. This really speaks to today’s marketplace where leaders need to be able to “turn on a dime” in order for organizations to succeed, said Battah.

And these qualities are especially sought after in leaders at Eagle.

“Our whole industry is based on speed because by the time clients come to us, they are desperate and they want staff yesterday — urgency is endemic in our organization,” said Dee. “It’s about being able to react fast and deliver quality results.”

Organizations should also help their leaders develop resiliency, found the survey. The most effective way of fostering this is through coaching and mentoring programs, said Carlyle.

“If you’re dealing with a very challenging situation for the first time, just like an athlete would have a coach that’s been through it before, it’s the same thing for leaders,” he said.

“(Leaders) who have been through it and are more experienced in difficult circumstances can provide some peer coaching to colleagues.”

HR needs to make leadership confidence a priority because without it an organization would be paralyzed, said Battah. Having a lot of skepticism in leaders’ ability to get the job done will prevent an organization from moving forward, he said.

“Really quickly, organizations can stop innovating, stop selling and with such a competitive external environment, when organizations are no longer renewing themselves, they really find themselves disadvantaged quite quickly,” said Carlyle.

Having strong confidence in leadership is essential for keeping staff engaged, getting them on board with new projects and retaining key talent, said Dee.

“If you have a leader that you can have confidence in, you can get behind them, you can understand and think, ‘Yeah, I can buy into that,’” he said.

“But if you just have a talking head and you don’t believe in them, you’re not going to be passionate about what you do. If the leaders are not walking the talk, why are you going to?”

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